The ‘90s were a bad time
to be a father in California.
OJ Simpson case helped usher in draconian domestic violence
policies which have victimized many innocent men. State-mandated
mandatory/presumptory arrest policies exhort police to make
arrests on domestic violence calls, and "primary aggressor"
policies pressure officers to view men as the instigators
of domestic violence incidents. As a result, many men have been
arrested on flimsy evidence, or when they were acting to defend
themselves against attacks by their female partners.
Nearly 250,000 domestic violence restraining orders are
currently active in California. A recent article in the
Family Law News, the official publication of the State Bar
of California Family Law Section, explains that the bar is
concerned that "protective orders are increasingly being used in
family law cases to help one side jockey for an advantage in
child custody.” The authors note that protective orders are
“almost routinely issued by the court in family law proceedings
even when there is relatively meager evidence and usually
without notice to the restrained person....it is troubling that
they appear to be sought more and more frequently for
retaliation and litigation purposes.”
Such orders are generally done ex parte, without the accused's
knowledge and with no opportunity afforded for him to defend
himself. When an order is issued, the man is booted out of his
own home and can even be jailed if he tries to contact his own
children. His first chance to defend himself against the charges
is usually two weeks later, at the hearing to make the order
permanent. Yet these hearings generally last no more than 15
minutes. The due process they afford the men can be gauged by
the State of California’s advice for men contesting restraining
not take more than three minutes to say what you disagree with.
You can bring witnesses or documents that support your case, but
the judge may not have enough time to talk to the witnesses.”
Restraining orders turn ordinary men into criminals by
forbidding many routine behaviors. Men are being arrested for
violating their orders by such acts as: returning their
children’s phone calls; going to their children’s school or
athletic events; sending their kids birthday cards; or
accidentally running into them at the park or the mall.
Research shows that these orders often do not even involve an
allegation of violence. Usually all that’s needed is a claim
that the person to be restrained “acted in a way that scared me”
or was “verbally abusive”—what’s known as “shout at your spouse,
lose your house.” Yet under a 1999 California law these
farcical orders can be used to deny these so-called “batterers”
joint custody of their children.
1998 then-Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti declared a
“get tough” campaign against so-called "deadbeat dads," sending
out thousands of summonses for paternity cases. The men were
given only 30 days to respond.
Many of the summonses targeted the wrong men, and many never
reached the intended parties. Eighty percent of Garcetti's paternity
judgments were made by default, locking the men into 18 years of
child support. Many took DNA tests proving that they were not
the fathers of the children they now had to take second jobs to
support. Others were assigned huge support arrearages by
mistake. Many became unable to support their own children. Some
of their marriages broke up, and some of the men landed in jail.
Garcetti created so much chaos and heartache that even diehard
feminist attorney Gloria Allred protested. Allred, who has
perhaps done more than anybody to promote the phrase and concept
of “deadbeat dads,” called Garcetti’s office “an organization
without a heart, without any compassion, and without a sense of
priorities…[it’s] a system run amok.''
Allred represented an impoverished, wheelchair-bound woman named
Mary Smith, who Garcetti's office erroneously billed for $24,000
in child support. In a panic Smith called Allred, who agreed to
handle the case pro bono. Allred made repeated calls to
Garcetti’s office to resolve the case but did not receive any
response. She noted, “Talk about trying to get blood out of a
Los Angeles Times described the men targeted by Garcetti
as “overwhelmingly blue-collar workers who ride the bus or drive
aging cars, showing up for court in jeans and a work shirt.”
According to the Times:
“The men almost always come to court alone because they cannot
afford counsel. It can take months to get an appointment with
the county-sponsored, free paralegal service.”
“When they arrive in court, many are already awash in child
support debt. Their failures to answer summonses routinely lead
to court orders–even if the summonses never reached them.
“From that point on they are in trouble, with bills for
delinquent child support quickly reaching thousands of dollars.
But sometimes the accuracy of those bills cannot be relied upon.
“’People get the bills and they're almost always wrong,’ said
one prosecutor. ‘It's like a bank putting in a hypothetical
balance instead of putting in your real balance’...
pervasive are the mistakes that even the courts have lost
confidence in the government's accounting…[the men targeted]
square off against an office with dozens of prosecutors, who…are
pressured by their bosses to speed cases through to secure more
Jackie Myers, a former Deputy District Attorney under Garcetti,
said that she quit her job because “we were being told to do
unethical, very unethical things.''
Garcetti later acknowledged that many of the men had been
mistakenly targeted but refused to relent, instead blaming the
men for not responding within 30 days. "The law is the law,” he
told CBS’s Bernard Goldberg. Incredibly, in 2002 Garcetti was
appointed to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.
1992 the California legislature dramatically increased the
financial burdens shouldered by fathers. Many child support
orders doubled and tripled overnight, quickly placing California
among the five states with the highest child support guidelines.
legacy of this legislation is a permanent underclass of fathers
buried alive under crushing debts.
According to an Urban Institute
study of California child support, the average arrears owed is
$3,000 higher than the median annual earnings of employed child
support debtors. Those in the poorest category have a child
support debt amounting to their full net income for seven and a
While politicians and women’s advocates love to raise the
specter of the high-living playboy deadbeat dad, according to a
report presented to the California Judicial Council in February,
80% of California child support debtors earn less than $15,000
per year. Nevertheless, in 2003 Senator Jackie Speier (D-San
Mateo), one of the leading proponents of harsh measures against
noncustodial fathers, declared:
"When I carry bills to strengthen child-support enforcement, and
suddenly some MD who owes $100,000 in back child support pays
attention because if he doesn't pay he risks losing his medical
license, frankly, that feels good."
fathers who serve as
reservists and National Guardsmen
have been particularly victimized by the child support system.
Child support orders are based on a reservists’ civilian pay.
When a reservist is called up to active duty his child support
obligation can jump overnight from 30 or 40% of take-home pay to
60 or 70% or more.
theory, any time a child support obligor loses his job or
suffers a pay cut he can go to court and get a downward
modification. In reality, courts move slowly and usually resist
granting downward modifications. Since reservists are sometimes
mobilized with as little as one day's notice, few are able to
obtain modifications before they leave.
behind on child support creates an arrearage which is
accelerated by penalties and the 10% interest California charges
on past-due support. An arrearage of only $5,000 can become a
felony at which point the child support obligor can be
incarcerated or economically crippled by a barrage of harsh
civil penalties, including seizure of
driver's licenses and business
licenses. Yet the federal Bradley Amendment prohibits judges
from wiping out child support debts, even if the debts were
incurred as a direct result of military service.
the 1996 Burgess ruling
the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of a custodial
mother who sought to move her children 40 miles away from their
father. The ruling had disastrous consequences for fathers and
children because it was interpreted by California courts as a
bright line rule mandating that courts permit moves of hundreds
or thousands of miles. Under Burgess, many children were
needlessly moved far away from loving fathers.
Today, however, things have improved for fathers, due to
some legislative victories, common sense, and the increased
societal realization that kids need their dads.
one, child support enforcement abuses have been tempered by a
2004 law and the Navarro decision, both of which make it
easier for falsely-named fathers to vacate default judgments.
Navarro the Second District Court of Appeal sternly
rebuked the Los Angeles County Child Support Services Department
for its practice of collecting child support based on
false paternity judgments. Manuel Navarro had been trapped into
a default judgment because he did not learn of the paternity
proceedings against him before the time limits to contest the
judgment had run out. In an opinion dripping with contempt,
Justice Rubin wrote:
"By strict application of the law,
appellant should be denied relief....Sometimes even more
important policies than the finality of judgments are at stake,
however...the County...should not enforce child-support
judgments it knows to be unfounded. And in particular, it should
not ask the courts to assist it in doing so...We will not
sully our hands by participating in an unjust, and factually
unfounded, result. We say no to the County, and we reverse."
Last September Governor Schwarzenegger signed SB 1082, a bill
which helps military parents by addressing the child support
boondoggle many mobilized reservists face.
Burgess was declawed by the
California Supreme Court’s 2004 LaMusga decision, which
stressed that children’s best interests and their relationship
with the noncustodial parent must be given substantial weight in
relocation cases. Two legislative attempts to abrogate
LaMusga, including one by Senator Gloria Romero (D-Los
Angeles) last month, have been beaten back by widespread
Nevertheless, the family law system remains stacked against
fathers. Most importantly, California law still does not do
nearly enough to protect fathers’ relationships with their
an extended version of a column which first appeared in the
[Los Angeles] (6/18/06). To read the column as published,
Chairman of the
Council on Responsible Fatherhood. He is the author of the book
Rights: Hard-hitting and Fair Advice for Every Father Involved in a Custody
Dispute. His website is
Sacks' columns on men's and fathers' issues have appeared in dozens of America's
largest newspapers. Glenn can be reached via his website at
via email at Glenn@GlennSacks.com.